Monday, 9 July 2007

Making the executive more accountable

Section two of The Governance of Britain is introduced saying it is fundamentally based upon the re-evaluation of the balance of powers in the UK at the moment compared with the ideals of a Montesquieu tripartite system. The assumptions used are that Parliament's role in holding the executive to account needs strengthening and that the whole system needs more local accountability to communities. The introduction holds that devolution and regional ministers has indeed put this power closer to the people, I don't think the former has proved itself even yet and the latter is still very much in its infancy.

Item one is National security, which opens with the suggestion that the Intelligence and Security Committee will have its statutory basis reviewed, the document praises its work but points out the argument that as it meets in private, it cannot be said to be transparent. This is obviously a tightrope situation, the committee will never be a open forum to discuss matters so there are a number of suggestions to increase perceived trust of the committee and its reports. These options included opening up the selection process for members to greater scrutiny, giving the committee the option to meet in public when appropriate, and two moves to give it greater independence, having its reports debated in both houses and led by the committee rather than a Minister, and separating its secretariat form the Cabinet Office (tradition home of "security" in government); including the possibility of an established independent investigator.

The other National Security point is that the government wish to convene a National Security committee bringing "Defence and Overseas Policy", "Security and Terrorism" and "Europe" under one banner. I worried that I was not as up on the system as I thought, as I would at first thought had the Ministerial Committee on Europe looking into far more things than would be taken up by a National Security committee, then I re-read the document and saw that the body would be looking into "the Government's wider international, European and international development policies" as well as the National Security Strategy. Now I worry that there really isn't enough focus there to do any significant good.

Recently their has been lots of grumbling in the media about one of Gordon Brown's key commitments to Parliament that he has already implemented, that statements and policy announcements to Parliament really are that and not rehashes of items already leaked or "briefed" to the media. In a key, but I think welcome (I also welcome the announce it to the house policy by the way) counterpoint, the list of legislation that will be put forward in the Queen's speech will be presented beforehand. This will allow for debate and public consultation and even provides for there to be change before the final speech formally sets out the timetable.
Departmental accountability is tackled next, this is another of the frustrating sections of the document where the authors lay out how it is now, suggest its shortcomings and then sign off with "We will ask someone else what to do about it." In this case, the fact that the whole house rarely gets to formally scrutinise departments effectively outside of debating specific items of legislation. The current arrangements of select committees that have very little in the way of formal powers to push for their reported recommendations to be pursued and adjournment debates in Westminster Hall is highlighted as not cutting the mustard. An interesting point is that while the Treasury and the MOD are closely examined as part of the budget and defence estimates debates the only other ministry with a fixed slot for House of Commons scrutiny is the department for Welsh affairs during the St David's Day debate.

After a brief section simplifying the reporting of budgets, estimates and actual expenditure to Parliament and another about the independence of the ONS, which is already going ahead, it is on to the regions. Again as with the ONS this section is about reform that is already under way; the ministers for the English regions were appointed as part of the reshuffle Gordon Brown conducted when he took office. Their remit seams to mostly be "Minister for the Regional Development Agency" and responsibility for championing the region. I am having real problems believing that this will work; I am however willing to wait and see.

The last point in this section is reforming the Ministerial code, which reads as a "we don't want another Blunkett or Mandelson style scandal, that we can be accused of not dealing with, please." including independent investigatory powers, annual reports on Minister's interests, scrutiny before parliament and changing the emphasis on the recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointment Rules, from voluntary advise to a requirement Ministers are expected to follow.

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